04 Apr 2017

Timeline of ship graphics

by Michael Zahniser

It always encourages me to read early novels by my favorite authors and discover how bad their writing was when they first started out – that they weren’t any better writers than me at first. In that same vein, here’s a gallery of some old ship sprites starting from more than three years ago, for those of you who are trying to create sprites and are not happy with how they’re turning out.

Jan 2014: Only a handful of ships existed. Most of the sprites were hand-drawn, using a vector graphics program to make the basic shapes and then drawing hull plates and stuff on top. This was the original graphic for the Argosy.
Jun 2014: I started switching more of the ship sprites over to 3D renders. Most of these are really blocky; it’s obvious I’m just pasting together a bunch of rounded rectangles. Also, I had not yet learned the importance of beveling everything.
Nov 2014: The last of my hand-drawn ships, and the only one which remains in the game today. The one nice thing about hand-drawing was that it let me create shapes that wouldn’t actually work, geometrically, in real life.
Dec 2014: It’s embarrassing to admit this, but this is what Korath World-Ships used to look like. It was a reasonable concept – a colony ship made from a bunch of hollowed-out asteroids – but it came out ugly, in part because a ship that big needs a lot finer detail.
Jan 2015: Here, to get an “alien” look, I’m making ships by applying a “subdivision” smoothing to a single, complicated object. I succeeded at making something unique-looking, but the lack of fine details makes them very cartoony.
May 2015: The Hai were my first attempt at making a whole family of ship sprites that share the same design language. All in all, I’m happy with how they came out, but they are still very obviously cobbled together from a set of blocks.
Oct 2015: I learned a quick way to make complex-looking greebles to add more texture to ships. From here on out, I add them to pretty much everything. This was the trick behind the “guts on the outside” aesthetics of the ship models in Star Wars.
Dec 2015: The Wanderers were one of the first ships I sketched out by hand before modeling them, and I really like how they turned out.
Apr 2016: The Kor Sestor are still one of my favorite ship designs. I like the visual variety of the plain, dark shells and the knobbly interiors. This is where I finally learned that the only way to create good-looking big ships is to add an insane amount of small details (while also leaving some areas of flat color, for contrast).
Oct 2016: Here I’m experimenting with “painting” color markings onto the ships rather than using whole colored 3D objects. The Coalition was also a challenge because I wanted three species with distinctive design languages, plus Heliarch ships that clearly combined elements of all three. The Arach ships were also the first time I played around with using bezier curves to make pipes.

So if your initial attempts aren’t turning out the way you envisioned, don’t lose hope! And, as a bonus, I’ll leave you with an example of what the first outfit graphics looked like:

A sprite for a steering engine with various sideways-facing exhausts

Um… yeah. That was supposed to be a steering system.

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